Writing Habits Revisited

One of my first blog posts was about the habits of a writer. Do you like it quiet? Can you work in the middle of a three-ring circus? Do you drink water? Tea? Something stronger? What time of day do you do your best writing?

Today’s post is a bit like that early post, but with an emphasis on a writer’s writing habits, rather than his or her surroundings and physical environment.

I’ve read a lot recently about the discussion going on among writers about the differences between being “plotter” or a “pantster.” So I’m going to jump in and add my two cents.

For those of you who may not be familiar with those words, a plotter, as you might expect, is a writer who plots out the details of her story before writing. A pantster, by contrast, is a writer who writes without plotting first; in other words, one who flies by the seat of her pants.

Which are you?

I am a card-carrying plotter. I outline a story to within an inch of its life. I’ve tried flying by the seat of my pants, and I find that I experience much more writer’s block and frustration when I don’t have an outline to follow.

There is one book that was instrumental in helping me to organize my thoughts and ideas into a coherent story. That book is Phyllis A. Whitney’s Guide to Fiction Writing. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Ms. Whitney, she was a prolific writer who wrote for many of her 100-plus years. She is my favorite romantic suspense writer, and I aspire to be half as good as she was. She was a plotter. She kept a notebook for each story, which she outlines beautifully in the book, containing all her notes, outlines, plotting ideas, character sketches, chronological information, research, and so on. Her reasoning for such a notebook, in part, is that it helps keep a writer organized and it helps one avoid writer’s block. I found that to be true. When I wrote my first novel, I kept a notebook religiously and I rarely dealt with writer’s block.

But I’m a plotter in real life, too. Maybe that helps explain why I’m a plotter as a writer. I like to know what’s going to happen. And when. To the minute. If I try to go to the grocery store without a list, trying to remember what I need by the seat of my pants, I’m a complete mess. When I have my list, I’m like a grocery-shopping machine. I’m in and out in a matter of minutes. I plan weekly menus, too. Without a menu, I never know from one day to the next what I’m making for dinner. Or whether my kids will have something edible for lunch. Making a menu helps me plan my week. And as long as we’re on the subject of menus, you may as well know that I follow recipes to the letter. “A pinch of this, a dash of that” is so not me. I’ve been known to visit four stores in search of lemongrass rather than doing without it if the recipe calls for lemongrass.

I’m not suggesting that being a pantster is bad. It’s just not for me. There are writers who can write amazing, cogent stories without an outline. They’re my heroes. They are the same people who can probably go to the grocery store without having a list that looks like it was generated by NASA.

The important thing for plotters to keep in mind is that there are times when a writer has to listen to her characters and be willing to deviate from the outline if it’s necessary to the development of the story. It happens. In the novel I’m currently working on, it took me quite a while to realize that I was missing a character. Once I was willing to admit that the story had to change to accommodate a new character, it got much easier to write.

So what do you think? Are you a plotter? A pantster? Are you like that in real life, too? I’d love to know.

Until next week,

Amy

My Bucket List

One of my daughters is a consummate list-maker.  She has lists for everything you can imagine, from her favorite foods to her favorite Disney movies to places she wants to visit.  I’m taking my cue from her today and making a list.  My bucket list.  I’m going to stop myself at ten items because that’s a nice round number and because I don’t want to bore you to death.

When I thought about writing this post, I realized I don’t really have a bucket list.  But when I actually tried to decide what might be on it, I had a hard time narrowing it down to ten.  I imagine most people have that same problem.  

Here goes.

First, I’d like to travel to Greece.  I want to see the postcard places with the white buildings and cerulean ocean in the background.  I want to taste real Greek cuisine.  I want to see all the places I’ve only read about in history books.

Second, I want to take a class at the Culinary Institute of America.  It doesn’t have to be any particular kind of class, though I’m partial to desserts.  

Third, I would love to learn French.  I took French in high school, but I remember almost nothing and if I had to have a conversation, I would be limited to “please” and “thank you” and “shut your mouth” and “I love cheese.”

Fourth and Fifth, I’d like to take two kinds of vacations:  an eco-vacation and a volunteer vacation.  The eco-vacation doesn’t have to be anywhere specific, but it would be nice if it were in a warm place.  And I’d like to take a volunteer vacation in South America. 

Sixth, I want to see a performance at Carnegie Hall.  In all the years I lived in and near Manhattan, I never visited Carnegie Hall and it’s one of the few things I regret about that time. 

Seventh, I want to go to Scotland.  I want to see the mountains and the plaids and the lochs.

Eighth, I want to go to Ireland.  I want to taste honest-to-goodness Irish pub food and see lots of green and lots of sheep.   

Ninth, I’d love to go whitewater rafting on the Colorado River.  I don’t even know why.  It just looks so cool in pictures.

And last, but not least, I’d like to see the Northern Lights.  Preferably from Norway.  

So that’s my bucket list.  I hope it inspires you to come up with your own if you haven’t yet, and I hope it inspires you to let me know what’s on yours. 

Until next week,

Amy  

The Book was Better

Last week, I wrote in this blog that books are better than movies. I was referring, of course, to books that are made into movies.

I have taken a highly unscientific survey and found that in general, people who see a movie that was based on a book usually leave the theater saying, “That was good, but I liked the book better.”

A recent case in point: The Hunger Games. I am the first person to admit that the movie was great, but it simply wasn’t as good as Suzanne Collins’ book. It’s not the fault of the movie producers…they made the best movie they could in the time allotted. A movie that closely followed the book would take many hours to watch and few people would take the time to go see it. But a lot gets left off the screen. The subtleties and nuances of each character and their relationships don’t have time to be explored.

But that’s not all that gets lost when a book becomes a movie. When I read a book, I’m constantly using my mind to picture the settings and the characters. When I see a movie, all that work has been done for me. I merely have to follow the plot. I like having to come up with the physical characteristics of people and places for myself. An author’s idea of what a character or place looks like is almost certainly different from my idea, but that’s okay. I only need the idea in my own head to enjoy a book. There have even been times when I’ve disagreed with an author’s description of a character’s physical appearance. When that happens, I can simply adjust the character’s appearance in my own head to what I think it should be. Have you ever seen a movie and then read the book? Or read a book, then seen the movie, then tried to read the book again? It’s almost impossible to see the characters and settings in your own head differently from the way they appeared on the big screen. Before I saw “The Hunger Games,” I didn’t imagine Katniss Everdeen looking like Jennifer Lawrence. Now I can’t even remember what “my” Katniss Everdeen looked like. She will always and forever look like Jennifer Lawrence. The same is true for the rest of the characters.

How about one of my favorite books, “Pride and Prejudice?” The first time I read it, I formed my own opinion of what Elizabeth Bennett looked like. Ditto for Mr. D’Arcy. I purposely avoided watching the old movie based on the book because I knew it would destroy my opinions of what the characters looked like. But when the “new” movie came out in 2005, I had to see it. It got such great reviews that I couldn’t in good conscience miss it. And you know what? Same thing happened. Now, as far as I’m concerned, Elizabeth Bennett looks just like Keira Knightley and Mr. D’Arcy is a dead ringer for Matthew Macfadyen. I can’t remember what the characters looked like in my own mind, but they looked different, of that I am sure.

And there are so many more…Harry Potter (all of them), Twilight (all of them), The Great Gatsby, The Chronicles of Narnia (all of them), Oliver Twist, etc., etc. The list goes on for miles. I have to admit that I haven’t seen all of the movies based on these books, nor would I want to. But I’d be willing to bet that the books were better in each and every case.

Having said that, in my decidedly unscholarly research I have actually found two exceptions to the rule. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are both Disney movies based on books. The first is “Peter Pan.” I tried to read the book once and couldn’t get through it. I was bored and confused. But the movie? One of my favorites. I’m always asking my kids if they want to watch it with me (they always say no). Likewise, the second one is “Alice in Wonderland.” I didn’t like the book, no offense to Lewis Carroll. But the movie is delightful. Perhaps my feeble mind is simply unwilling to dig deep into the book, but it’s much easier and more enjoyable for me to watch the Disney adaptation of the story.

In my humble opinion, the book is almost always better, Peter Pan and Alice notwithstanding. Do you agree? Disagree? What are your personal exceptions? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next week,

Amy

Is the Main Character You?

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my first novel will be out in July, 2014. It’s called Secrets of Hallstead House and the main character’s name is Macy Stoddard. Once in a while someone will ask me if Macy, or any of the other characters, is based on a real person. The short answer is no.

But it’s more complicated than that. There are parts of Macy that resemble me and parts of her that are my opposite. For example, she has brown hair. I have brown hair as long as I’ve been to the hairdresser recently. She is a caregiver, like me. I’m not a nurse, but taking care of people is what I love to do. Macy discovers a love of the Saint Lawrence River. I loved the River practically from birth. On the other hand, Macy can’t swim. I love to swim, and I’ve passed that love along to all of my kids. She hates boats; I love boats. She’s brave, whereas I probably would have left the island at the first sign of danger.

That’s one of the many fun things about writing fiction. A writer gets to make each person exactly the way she wants. Not a perfect person, but one that’s perfect for her purposes. A writer can imagine what a person looks like, and POOF, that’s the way the person looks. If a writer needs a bad guy, she doesn’t have to go looking for one. She makes him up. Need an interesting place to hide a body? Just give a writer a sec…she’ll come up with something.

There are lots of great places to come up with story ideas, too, not just characters. Sometimes ideas come from the headlines. Sometimes from a tiny blurb in a newspaper. Sometimes from an obituary. Ideas can come from going on vacation and passing an abandoned house and asking yourself, “What if…?” Ideas can come from dreams. Or nightmares. Or an overheard conversation. It’s fun to make stuff up. As a fiction writer, I take the world as it is and add people and problems from my imagination. I think fantasy writers must have a tough job. They not only have to make up their people and their stories, but they have to make up the whole world, too. Now that requires imagination.

But here’s something else that’s fun: I may have a picture in my mind of what my main character looks like, but if that’s different from the picture in the reader’s mind, that’s okay. All I need as the writer is my picture. The same goes for the setting. I may have a very specific idea of what a place looks like, but it’s totally fine if the reader has a different picture. That’s what makes books so much better than movies, but that’s a post for a different day.

I’d love to hear about some of your favorite fictional characters. I’ll start. I’ve had lots of favorites, but at the moment, my favorite fictional character is Hamish Macbeth. He’s the main character in a series of books by M.C. Beaton. He’s a police constable, tall and lanky with bright red hair. And I love to picture the area of Scotland where he patrols. Anyone else read these books?

Until next week,

Amy